Sunday, September 9, 2012

Status Hierarchies: Do We Need Them?

Emile Durkheim (source)

I have been studying the topic of social status ever since I started my graduate training. That was in 2004 when George W. Bush was starting his second term as President, Clint Eastwood was busy winning an Oscar for best picture (Million Dollar Baby), and Lindsay Lohan wasn’t a punchline. In all of that time I hadn’t ever considered the question of whether society needs social hierarchies in the first place? That is, do we really need to rank ourselves in society relative to others? Is it necessary to have varying levels of power, prestige, and status in society? Or could society function quite well without differentiation based on status?

Clearly there are some good anecdotes that support the notion that hierarchy is unnecessary. For instance, there is an excellent pizza joint in Berkeley called Cheeseboard. It’s actually the Cheese Board Collective, which is owned and operated by a cooperative group of individuals who each share in the work and the profits of the business. There are no explicit status hierarchies at the Cheeseboard, and they make some pretty excellent pizza!

Unfortunately there aren’t too many other examples of groups or societies without social hierarchy. Which made me wonder: Why is that?

It’s important to point out the adaptive benefits of having hierarchies in society. For instance, Emile Durkheim (1893) argued in the Division of Labor (or Labour) in Society that people differ in ability, and that these abilities lead us to take on a different role in the labor force. Thus, some people will be turning screws and some people will be managing others. Durkheim, for his part, seemed to think that this division was going to be awesome for everyone because all people could be part of a larger whole—the manager and the screw-turner both contribute in their own unique way toward making an automobile. However, one of the consequences of a division of labor is that some people are going to have better jobs than others, more freedom and autonomy in their work, and also, more respect, prestige, and status.

So, hierarchies seem to form naturally out of divisions of labor in society. That’s fine, but maybe people don’t notice these status differences? Maybe, the screw- turner and the manager don’t see their jobs as that different, and don’t think of one job as higher status than the other? It’s possible, but not likely that people ignore status differences in society. Why might that be the case?

Social groups can gain benefits from having divisions of labor—they increase productivity by allowing people to specialize their skills (Durkheim, 1893). Groups can also gain benefits from signaling and perceiving status differences. The reasoning behind this point is simple: If I have a problem that I need help with, or resources to solve, I need to be able to quickly and accurately discern which people, among my social group, have the necessary resources and skills to help me with my problem. By this logic, humans should have been developing a clear signaling process for status differences in social groups for centuries.

There is some mounting evidence suggesting that the nonverbal display of pride evolved to serve this status signaling function. Pride is an emotion experienced when one achieves socially valued success. The typical pride display includes expanding the chest, clenching the fists, placing the arms on the hips or raising the arms in a “V” shape, and showing a small and controlled smile.

If the pride expression evolved to serve a status signaling function in social groups. If this is true, then pride displays should be associated with status cross-culturally. Recent research by Jess Tracy at the University of British Columbia and her colleagues suggests that this might be true.

In a 2008 study conducted by Tracy along with David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University the emotion expressions of Olympic judokas were examined following wins or losses at the 2004 Athens Olympics. They found that the prototypical pride display was shown following wins (vs. losses) cross-culturally. This means that if whether you are from Malaysia or Miami, you tend to celebrate a victory in the same fashion, using the same pride display. That’s cool, but that wasn’t the best part of the study! In a second sample, Tracy and Matsumoto examined pride expressions for congenitally blind judokas at the 2004 Paralympic games. They found the same pattern of nonverbal pride expressions following wins (vs. losses) for these blind athletes. These results suggest that pride evolved for the communication of one’s socially valued position (Tracy & Matsumoto, 2008). That congenitally blind athletes showed the same pride expressions as their sighted counterparts is indicative of the fact that pride displays are not simply expressions we mimic based on viewing our peers experiencing success. Pride expressions seem to have a richer history in human ancestry, and may be a universal expression of emotion.

This evidence seems to suggest that, while it seems nice to think of a context where we could all be free from status differences, it’s likely tough to achieve that sort of utopia. For instance, I wonder what happens at the Cheeseboard when one person in the collective is complemented for their work and others are not? Status hierarchies might form even in that context, explicitly designed to minimize status differences.

What do you think about status hierarchies? Should/could we rid ourselves of status in society? I’d love to read your comments!

Tracy JL, & Matsumoto D (2008). The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105 (33), 11655-60 PMID: 18695237


  1. Nice article!

    Indeed, it appears that no human organization can achieve a perfect horizontal structure. We are living organisms, not atoms in a cristal ;)
    The question then appears as what is the minimalistic structure that we have to adopt in order to maximize fairness, cooperation and sustainability. Big question!

    1. Thanks! That is a great question. Clearly hierarchies form, but they definitely don't need to be as unequal as they are--in terms of resource sharing.

  2. I believe that status hierarchies are necessary because one way or another some will rise and others will fall. With hierarchies already in place there will not be fighting over who falls or not. This is evident in the Stanford University prison experiment where some students where prisoners and some where guards. Even though they were already given their duty they still fought for power and respect. In conclusion, status hierarchies are inevitable and in a way are necessary.

  3. Hey a site you might be interested in based on what I'm reading here. Really good stuff all on the same points. I highly recommend it:

  4. I think it boils down to humans being mammals. We are confined by our biology. A handful of individuals can rise above that, but most can't. This is probably true of the Cheeseboard collective you mention too. Even where there isn't supposed to be any rank order there are usually informla hierarchies.

  5. I took Professor Burt's course on Network Structures at Chicago Booth that may provide explanation for this. Burt's class was about how networks are either open or closed, with the determining factor being how well the people in your network know each other. The more social connections there were between the other people within your network, as a percentage of total connections you have to people in your network, the more closed your network was considered. For example, if you know three people, your network would be completely closed if all three people knew each other. Your network would be open if none of them knew each other.

    Burt didn't stress the importance of one network over another, he just showed how their functions differed. For example, within a company, you would drive efficiency and profit via closed networks. Because everyone knows each other, there is a sort of self-check to ensure that people follow policy and procedures. However, open networks were optimal for a situation where you needed to create value to drive top line growth. These situations tended to involve bridging structural knowledge gaps, linking two unrelated topics and solving problems.

    With respect to your discussion about social hierarchy, it seems that the balance between brokerage and closure of a person's network would determine their success at solving other people's problems. If someone is more comfortable with a closure network, they will know fewer people really well. This wouldn't bode well for helping someone from another city solve their problems. However, if someone is more comfortable with kind of knowing many people but not as well as the person with a closure network, they are going to be able to identify people who have solutions for other people's problems more readily. I suppose social stature will precipitate out of this value creation because that person will be looked upon more favorably by both parties. Additionally, if the broker ever needs help with another problem, they will have more pull with these people than otherwise.

  6. If you haven't already, you would probably enjoy reading more about hunter-gatherers - AFAIK, they place a lot less importance on status hierarchies than us folks in agrarian and industrialized societies.

    Btw.: "Status Hierarchies: Do We Need Them?" - I'd definitely phrase that as "Who needs status hierarchies, and for what purpose?"

    1. Thanks for the comment Nik! Yeah, hunter gatherer communities have much less need of hierarchy, although I wonder about the extent of formal hierarchies. For example, there is a Yasawa Island culture in Fiji that researchers have studied recently--they hunt, gather, and do some yam farming.

      Anyway, there are strict rules among the villagers to not lord status over each other, and yet, informal hierarchies do develop, mostly based on age.